People Come in a Number of Varieties, but Perfect Isn’t One of Them

A hiker overlooks the sunset. Text "Not all classrooms have four walls" appears on the graphic.

People have one thing in common: they are all different.

- Robert Zend

Hi. My name is Ian. I am a recovering perfectionist! I say recovering because it never really goes away; it lurks in the shadows occasionally just waiting to pounce. I’m not sure where my desire for constant perfection came from, but it’s been with me as long as I can remember. I do know through education and learning, practising focus and awareness, and a lot of positive self-talk, it has become quite manageable. And, being a continuous work in progress and a person committed to ongoing personal growth, I make mistakes. Always remember, excellence does not necessarily mean perfection. One of my favourite proverbs is, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Jim Donovan writes in his book, Handbook to a Happier Life: "Somehow in growing into adulthood, we have developed an insane belief that we should do everything perfectly. That’s nonsense. If you have a small child and he or she is learning to walk, how many chances do you give the child to succeed? After a couple of tries, will you tell the child he is stupid and say 'Okay, that’s enough. You’ll just have to crawl the rest of your life. I guess you don’t have what it takes to be a walker.' I doubt that you would react in this manner. Let me ask you then, why do it with yourself? This type of behaviour is another reason people fear trying new things. Fear of failure is one of the biggest obstacles to human progress and growth. Again, we have this idea we must be perfect right from the start. Think about anything you now know how to do. Were you born able to do it? Imagine being operated on by a born surgeon. Somewhere along the way, you had to learn. Before you knew how to ride a bike, you were unable to ride a bike. I’ll bet you were not very good at first, but with practice, you improved."

A young apprentice applied to a master carpenter for a job. The older man asked him, “Do you know your trade?”

“Yes, Sir!" The young man answered proudly.

“Have you ever made a mistake?” the older man inquired. “No, sir!” the young man answered, feeling certain he would get the job.

“Then, there’s no way I’m going to hire you,” said the master carpenter, “because when you make one, you won’t know how to fix it.”

Peter Drucker adds, “I would never promote to a top-level job a person who was not making mistakes, otherwise he is sure to be mediocre.” And we were not born to be mediocre! We will be looking in depth at the subject of mistakes in the next lesson.

Fear of failure is one of the biggest obstacles to human progress and growth.

Oprah Winfrey, on the occasion of receiving the Ladies Home Journal One Smart Lady Award in February, 1995 stated: “If you heed all of life’s lessons, by the time you get to this age, you should have learned a few things. And I think I’ve learned a few things, but there are days when I don’t think I’m very smart at all. That’s why I am glad to have the award, so I can pull it out and say, ‘But they said I was some smart lady, so why am I in this situation?’ There are days when I’ve made the same mistake fourteen times, and I say, ‘Do I have any sense?’ Now I have an award to prove that I do. So, every time I’m in the mistake pit, I am going to say, ‘One day I was one smart lady-and I had four hundred witnesses.’”

Let’s look at some perfectionistic tendencies:

  • Do you feel horrible when you find out you made a mistake?

  • Are you constantly second guessing yourself?

  • Do you have a need to control everything around you?

  • Do you beat yourself up over the smallest thing that goes wrong?

  • Do you obsess over little things-even when you know they should not matter?

  • Do you get defensive if someone points out your errors?

  • Have you set unrealistic expectations and standards for both yourself and others?

  • Do you spend an excessive amount of time to perfect something even at the expenses of your well-being?

  • Do you feel the people around you expect you to excel at whatever you do?

What are your standards that you measure yourself and others against? Are you using the same standards on yourself as you are on others? Are you expecting more from yourself than from anyone else? The standards we often set for ourselves are a lot higher than the standards we set for everyone else. When we expect perfection from ourselves and others, we are always going to be disappointed because no one can live up to these standards. When nobody around you seems to measure up, it may be time to check your measuring stick.

Over 40 years ago, after I decided to become a full-time trainer/facilitator in professional and personal development, I created a few standards/measuring sticks for myself. One was, I would never miss a workshop due to illness; that I would never get sick. Is that a reasonable expectation? I’m very proud that I have missed less than 5 workshops over that 40 plus year career. But oh, that first session I missed, what guilt! What a bad person I was! Would my clients think less of me? Could I ever forgive myself? That’s where guilt comes form. Guilt is not imposed on us by others. It results when we do not meet our personal expectations of ourselves. Are your expectations reasonable?

The following is an exercise I have been using for well over 30 years in my workshops on Communication and Managing Conflict. I have participants look around where they are sitting, really observing their environment specifically searching for everything they see that is red. Then, I ask them to write down everything they saw that was green. With a red mind set, you’ll find that red jumps out at you, red in the painting on the wall, and so on. You will tend to ignore the greens and any other colours. In like fashion, you’ve probably noticed when you buy a new car, you will promptly see the make of that car seemingly everywhere. That’s because people find what they are looking for; what we see depends on mainly what we look for. If you are looking for flaws you will find them. It’s all a matter of setting your mental channel.

Naomi Judd, in her book, Naomi’s Breakthrough Guide writes, “The expression ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ originated with a cartoon that you were supposed to study closely in order to see what was wrong or missing. The viewer usually doesn’t pay attention to what’s right about the picture, they’re focused on finding fault. This is precisely what happens when you or I are being perfectionistic. We’re standing outside of life nitpicking at little things, finding fault, and then judging.”

Guilt is not imposed on us by others. It results when we do not meet our personal expectations of ourselves.

In a Peanuts cartoon strip, Linus had his security blanket and his thumb resting safely in his mouth, but was troubled. Turning to Lucy, who was sitting next to him, he asked, “Why are you always so anxious to criticize me?” The response was typical Lucy. “I just think I have a knack for seeing other people’s faults.”

Exasperated, Linus threw up his hands and asked, “What about your own faults?”

Without hesitation, Lucy explained, “I have a knack for overlooking them.” Lucy is not the only one who believes their knack or calling on life is to point out and correct the weaknesses of others. Unfortunately, these same people are customarily blind to their own shortcomings. Some people find fault like there’s a reward for it.

In my travels, I once saw this printed on a t-shirt, “When I said I was normal I might have exaggerated slightly.”

How do you define normal? Here are some thoughts I came across in my research:

  • Normal is just an illusion, what is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.

  • The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.

  • Normal is a setting on a dryer.

Calvin, from the cartoon Calvin and Hobbes was asked, “What does your dad do?” To which he replied, “Mostly, he gets on my nerves. The end.”

How many of us have people that get on our nerves? An associate of mine once remarked after a very difficult business negotiation, “The more I get to know certain people, the more I realize why Noah only let animals board the ark.”

How do you deal with other people’s so-called limitations and imperfections?

I wish I could say to everyone when I meet them, “The first thing you should know about me is that I am not you. A lot more will make sense after that.”

First, you must accept the fact that all people are different. When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are. After all, they are people with all the faults and frailties of the human condition. On the positive side, everyone you will ever meet knows some things that you don’t; you can learn from them. Remember, we are all both knowledgeable and sometimes ignorant, but on different subjects.

One thing I’ve learned about people is they can look at the exact same thing and see something totally different. Remember as a child how you would lie on your back, gazing at the clouds and spot imaginary shapes floating by? Sometimes your friend would see the same shape emerging. At other times, only your eyes would appreciate the image; sometimes, they would see something different.

If there is one lesson I wish I learned earlier in life, it is that you can’t control someone else’s behaviour. Other people are just people. We really have to look at what we can and can’t control in relation to other people. You may not be able to control the other person’s attitude, how well they listen, their motivation, their priorities or their availability, among other things. You only have control over yourself and how you choose to be as a person. As for others, you can only choose to accept them or walk away. But so many of our efforts in communications both at work and at home revolve around trying to get other people to behave differently. We certainly can encourage them to make specific changes, but whether or not a person changes is entirely up to them. I’ve often questioned myself: “Did Mister Rogers adequately prepare me for the people in my neighborhood?”

I like to spend a week every February at Sanibel Island in Florida. Sanibel is a go- to location for shell collectors. Some shells that wash up on the beach were once very strong and beautiful. You don’t know what kind of journey they took to get there, ending up extremely fragile and broken. People are the same. Everyone out there is fighting a hard battle at times. There is a story behind every person. There is a reason why they are the way they are. Think about that, and respect them for who they are.

You can’t control someone else’s behaviour.

David Grayson writes: “Commandment number one of any truly civilized society is this: Let people be different.” We need to respect and value differences; way too many people go through life thinking everyone else should have the same style they do, and if they don’t, they are defective. Bette Midler adds: “I didn’t belong as a kid, and that always bothered me. If only I had known that one day my differences would be an asset, then my earlier life would have been much easier.” Great relationships are about two things, find out the similarities, and second, respect the differences; strength lies in differences not in similarities.

Walt Longmire, lead actor in the Netflix Series Longmire, states, “It would be nice if life weren’t so messy, but that’s not the nature of things; we want things to be perfect but most of the time we just spend our existence cleaning up the messes we make and sometimes the messes of other people, people about whom we care most in the world.”

Abraham Lincoln wrote: “Too many of us become enraged because we have to bear the shortcomings of others. We should remember that not one of us is perfect, and that others see our defects as obviously as we see theirs. We forget too often to look at ourselves through the eyes of our friends. Let us, therefore, bear the shortcomings of each other for the ultimate benefit of everyone." Also remember, it is not a requirement of being human that we are required to get along with everyone. Heard in an interview: “In every community there is at least one person who drives you crazy. If not, you are probably driving someone else crazy. If neither of these then you are not engaging with each other enough.” I’ve also read that every family has one weird relative. If you don’t know who it is, then perhaps it’s you.

What is stress? It’s the gap between our expectations and reality. Expectations are actually resentments waiting to happen. It’s been said that expectation is a fool’s guide to life; what screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be. You’ll always be frustrated and disappointed when you expect people to act as you would. Accept the fact that some people didn’t intend to let you down; their best is just less than you expected. Don’t blame people for disappointing you. Never get mad at someone for being who they’ve always been. Be upset with yourself for not coming to terms with it sooner.

Dr. Phil, author of Life Matters, wrote, “When our expectations are based on illusion or wishful thinking, or when they don’t take into honest consideration the realities of our own situation, we’ll likely be disappointed and frustrated most of the time.” Max Lucado adds, “Disappointment is caused by unmet expectations. Disappointment is cured by revamped expectations.”

Expectations are actually resentments waiting to happen.

There’s a clever six-word story that highlights this so well:

“Who hurt you?” “My own expectations.”

Things you should stop expecting from others:

  • To live based on your standards.

  • To agree on everything you say.

  • To be perfect.

  • To read your mind.

  • To understand you.

  • To always support you.

  • To be the same persons they were a year ago.

  • To always be around.

Stop reliving the disappointments you set up for yourself when people fail to achieve the unattainable expectations or high standards you set for them. Establish more reasonable or realistic goals for them.

A traveller nearing a great city asked a man seated by the wayside, “What are the people like in this city?”

"How were the people where you came from?” replied the man.

“A terrible lot,” the traveller responded, “Mean, untrustworthy, and detestable in all respects.”

“Ah,” said the sage. “You will find them the same in the city ahead.”

Scarcely was the first traveller gone when another one stopped and also inquired about the people in the city before him. Again, the man asked about the people in the place the traveller had left.

“They were fine people; honest, industrious, and generous to a fault. I was sorry to leave,” declared the second traveller.

Responded the wise one: “You’ll find them the same in the city ahead.”

Do you keep finding people difficult wherever you go? Do people consistently fail to meet your expectations of them? Do the same negative patterns repeat over and over in your life? You are the only person that has actively participated and shared in all your life experiences. You are also the person that you are going to spend the rest of your life with. You are the ‘common denominator’ in your own life. Could you be your own most difficult person?

Sometimes you are the toxic person. Sometimes the problem is you. One of the most healing things you can do is recognize where in your life you are your own poison. If you continually have problems with everyone you come across, more than likely the problem is you.

It’s never too late to change. Keep on checking yourself. Mistakes can be re-framed as opportunities. Look at them, own them, learn from them, and move on. Do better. Be better. Madonna sums it up beautifully: “No matter who you are, no matter what you did, no matter where you’ve come from, you can always become a better version of yourself.”

Henry Jenkins writes, “Human beings do not engage in activities that are meaningless. If you think you see people doing things meaningless, look again and try to understand what the activities mean for them.”

Let’s close this lesson with some words from Psychiatrist and Author David Burns. He writes, “Aim for success, not perfection. Never give up your right to be wrong, because you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life. Remember that fear always lurks behind perfectionism. Confronting your fears and allowing yourself the right to be human can, paradoxically, make yourself a happier and more productive person.”

You don’t inspire others by being perfect. You inspire them by how you deal with your imperfection.

Food for Thought

If relevant, ask people close to you how your perfectionism affects them.

What perfect conditions do you need to let go of so you can move forward?

Do you have unrealistic expectations of others?

What difference does other people’s approval or disapproval truly make to who you are?

What’s a belief that you hold with which many people disagree? Can you agree to disagree?

Choose one quote every day or perhaps one or two every week if you like. How do these quotes speak to you? What applications do you see in your life? Share your chosen quotes with a family member, a friend, a business colleague. Create a ‘quote of the day’ club at work.

Be tolerant of the human race. Your whole family belongs to it and some of your spouse’s family does to.

- Anonymous

You can’t control how other people see you or think of you. And you have to be comfortable with that.

- Helen Mirren

And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.

- John Steinbeck

I think everybody’s weird. We should all celebrate our individuality and not be embarrassed or ashamed by it.

- Johnny Depp

The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept.

- George Carlin

I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.

- Michael J. Fox

I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people that annoy me.

- Fred Allen

Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something, and has lost something.

- H. Jackson Brown Jr.

I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.

- Bruce Lee

It’s your own fault for not living up to my impossibly high standards.

- Ashleigh Brilliant

A pint can’t hold a quart. If it holds a pint it is doing all that can be expected of it.

- Margaretta W. Deland

Long ago, I made up my mind to let my friends have their peculiarities.

- David Grayson

The entire population of the universe with one trifling exception, is composed of others.

- John Andrew Holmes

If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.

- Margaret Atwood

The closest to perfection a person ever comes is when he fills out an application form.

- Stanley J. Randall

I was an accountant. I wasn’t a very good accountant. I always felt that if you

got within two or three bucks of it that was close enough.

- Bob Newhart

Were we fully able to understand the reasons for other people’s behavior, it would all make sense.

- Sigmund Freud

Have you ever noticed that anyone driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac?

- George Carlin

Share the similarities, celebrate the differences.

- M. Scott Peck

The desire for perfection is the worst disease that ever afflicted the human mind.

- Louis de Fontaine

Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.

- Mark Twain

There are three kinds of friends; best friends, guest friends, and pest friends.

- Laurence J. Peter

Next Lesson: Anger is One Letter Short of Danger

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